Monday, September 24, 2018

Recently Read

She Has Her Mother's Laugh, Carl Zimmer, Picador, 2018

We are more than the sum of the combination of genes we inherit from our parents, and that combination is in any case never as simple as two halves making a whole. That's the basic thesis of Carl Zimmer's intimidatingly large but beautifully lucid exposition of the history, ethics and science  of heredity, illuminated and tied together by human stories, from Luther Burbank's alchemical talent for producing hundreds of new varieties of fruit, flowers and vegetables, the 'feebleminded' girl at the centre of a study that underpinned the eugenic movement in the United States, and the implications of Zimmer's agreement to have his own genome sequenced, and the bacterial population of his bellybutton analysed:
When I looked over my spreadsheet, I could see that seventeen of my species were unique to me. One type, called Marimonas, had only been known from the Mariana Trench, the deepest spot in the ocean. Another, called Georgenia, lives in the soil. In Japan.

On discovering this, I e-mailed Dunn [the biologist conducting the study] to let him know I'd never been to Japan.

"It has apparently been to you," he replied.

Zimmer's book is likewise as wide-ranging and crammed with unexpected revelations, from the search for genes that control variables such as height and intelligence to mosaicism and human chimeras, and from tracking the flow of genes in human populations to the inheritance of a cumulative culture that may reach back at least seven million years, to the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees. It's an exemplary explication of how the narrow definition of heredity, limiting it to genes, has been overturned. We are the product not only of our genetic inheritance, but also the social network and history of our immediate family, and our shared culture and an environment altered by human activity. Readers of Austral may see a parallel, here.

Associated Reading: I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us, by Ed Yong, and The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History Of Life, by David Quammen

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